Blackshaw, T. and Long, J. (2005) 'What's the Big Idea? A Critical Exploration of the Concept of Social Capital and its Incorporation into Leisure Policy Discourse', Leisure Studies, 24 (3): 239 - 58.
The concept of social capital has become especially influential through the work of Putnam, and is now common in lots of government social policy discourse [240 for examples]. Sport and leisure as especially important in the new policies, perhaps excessively so and at the expense of other social networks. Despite the history of interest in the concept outlined in Putnam, Bourdieu seems to be little read, although his work can be used to develop a critical insight into the symbolic and the exclusionary aspects.
Putnam's book (Bowling Alone) talks about the decline of community. Social capital is defined as having both bonding and bridging functions. It seems to offer one of those mechanisms where private becomes the public good, since social capital developed by individuals can help the growth of community. Social capital takes many forms. The boundaries around communities both include and exclude, and Putnam is aware that communities can also engage in exploitation of outsiders. The book goes on to employ a variety of data to demonstrate the changes in the stock of social capital -- data on memberships of political, religious, civic, cultural and sporting organisations. Multi-various statistics are used to isolate particular factors. The main factors responsible for the decline of cultural capital are generational change, electronic entertainment, suburbanisation, and the pressures of time and money [in order of importance] (243). The book tries to show there are positive correlations between social capital and health, prosperity, tolerance and business performance [clear echoes of both Durkheim, and Elias and Dunning on civilisation].
The authors identify a clear strand of communitarian politics, but one where the criticisms are ignored [roughly that community solidarity will and must turn into exploitation and conservatism]. This makes the piece 'structural functionalist in orientation' (244), especially in its belief that the social good will emerge from community action. The underlying values are functionalist too --'commitment to the "norm" through the idea of consensus; the recognition of obligations, reciprocity and responsibility to others; solidarity; and trust which is largely drawn through social networks particularly by... voluntary associations... [largely]... sport and leisure clubs' (244).
These views will be familiar to students of leisure policy, but Putnam seems to add lots of new data. This has helped convince civil servants worried about proof of impact. There is no comparable UK data, but there are similar concerns about the decline of community. It has often been important to claim a strong social function of leisure instead of a narrowly economic one [which is also difficult to prove] the emphasis on voluntary associations resonated nicely with Third Way politics. The same issues are raised in PAT 10, for example.
Putnam does not provide sufficient data on the difference between bonding and bridging forms of social capital. The piece is naive sociologically in its faith in simple identifiable identities and communities. Identities are much more diverse and mixed, and networks tend to be 'liquid' rather than firmly rooted in social realities. It is bridging between the major opposed groups that is the issue anyway, for example the 'races'. [The argument here reminds me of the attack made on 'conflict sociology', or 'post marxism' for that matter that concerns itself with relations between any kind of group, which reduces the important political struggles and puts them on a par with conflicts between neighbours over a hedge].
Nor is Putnam right to suggest that generational differences are the main factor. This is another example of the lack of analysis of actual social forces. There are several questionable assumptions involved, such as that women's work lowers social capital because they do not stay to look after their families and communities so much. Work can clearly increase social interaction for women, and there is a lack of critical analysis of regional communities as patriarchal rather than nice and harmonious -- the same point applies to neighbourhoods, families or nations, of course.
There is little hard evidence of the benefits of social capital, just as with the more inflated claims for leisure policy [the authors include themselves among those making these inflated claims]. Famous examples like the Asian economies show the double edged nature of social capital -- on the one hand, social networks definitely aided economic development, but they also led to 'crony capitalism' (246).
The research is positivist and individualist. There are quantitative notions of community developed from the data which are then used 'to theorise social network at various idealized levels' (246). [An important critique, probably based on marxist analysis of political economy and philosophy which both do the same thing -- working up abstract concepts such as the market or the state, and then simply identifying actual practice as examples of those lovely concepts. In both cases, concrete analysis of actual markets and actual states is required instead].
The authors admit similar problems in their own work defending leisure as regenerative, and there is a reference to one [substantial] example here. However, they have never embraced functionalism with its support for capitalism, nor focused on the bourgeois individual as the unit of analysis. Globalism and consumerism are at the heart of personal identity and '"choices" are more likely to be hollow' (247). The communitarian response is to attempt to develop new forms of social constraint to restore the situation -- in other words there must be limits to freedom involved, based on some consensus. Communitarianism assumes that the local is the key location for the shared interests -- another example of a dubious connection between the idealised notion of community and actual spaces. Communitarianism is involved in the provision of new forms of public and private spaces for people, especially 'the poor' (247).
A similar slippage arises between the ideal and the actual in the concept of civil society. There is an inevitable nostalgia involved, and the concept ignores the divisive effects of the market. It is Durkheimian in its emphasis on social solidarity [the authors say that the Durkheimian concept is virtually the same as the notion of social capital] This is a romantic view, common in leisure policy -- in fact, nostalgic communities of this kind may exist best on the sporting field, but probably only on the sporting field.
Thus Jarvie (2003) sees major functionalist benefits in sport -- it stimulates a sense of responsibility, offers a set of agreed rules, and develops consensus and acceptance. Similarly, Stebbins sees serious leisure as having functionalist benefits -- it is a strongly moral pursuit and integrative, compared to the more contemptible casual leisure. Rojek's critique of Stebbins (2000) says that this reduces leisure to a rational purposive act, and, again, is highly idealised. Both of these approaches need to study actual clubs and associations of hobbyists. Otherwise, they will ignore hierarchy, conflict, conservatism and insularity. Generally, simply asking for more social connections between people is not the answer if existing forms of social relations are not criticised first.
Bourdieu offers a more insightful and critical analysis linking symbolic and economic capital. This is in contrast to the usual view [here associated with the work of Coleman] which sees social capital as a matter of social connections which support individuals. Bourdieu's work is more sociological, and has led to different sorts of policy in France. It incorporates qualitative approaches, and attempts to let 'the voices of the oppressed ...be heard' (250). Bourdieu reintroduces the class connections with taste, and points to class struggles going on in various fields. The concept of habitus suggests practical knowing in social situations, and the work focuses especially on the 'doxic relation'-- 'that tacitly cognitive and practical sense of knowing of what can and cannot be reasonably achieved' (251). This relation explains how low expectations constrain opportunities, for example.
Participation in leisure activities or any other kind of collective action depends on the possession of suitable resources (capitals), and also to the extent to which their use is 'symbolic', that is unquestioned, unperceived [hegemonic]. Mostly, capitals are used to pursue processes of distinction. This must exclude others, so there can be no emergence of a genuine collective interest. Capitals of this kind are both tangible resources and possible symbols. Apparently general cultural rules are arbitrary, reflecting 'speciously constructed interests of dominant groups' (251) who classify and valorise their interests through notions of taste and distaste. Any social trust is therefore always likely to be exploited for gain. Generally, the poor are seen as naturally inferior and marginalized and not to be trusted, producing a whole cycle of deprivation as in the studies in The Weight of the World. The geographical isolation that can result provides physical barriers in any attempt to bridge.
There are different implications for politics arising from this stance. New forms of engagement with the poor are required, via cultural intermediaries. So far, such intermediaries have only provided a limited valuing of popular culture so that intellectuals can grasp it, and appropriate bits of it [Bourdieu's work on the new petit bourgeoisie is apparent here]. Some social barriers have been broken between high and low culture, but only via a 'narcissistic fascination with lifestyle and identity' (252).
What is needed instead is the development of respect. The poorer and excluded suffer from loss of normal channels which provide respect, such as jobs and family. Instead, they can search for '"cool respect" through spectacular consumption' (253). Cool respect can involve 'appropriate' stances towards the values of others. Cultural intermediaries can help here, once 'recast as community development workers' (253). Top-down imposition is to be avoided. [It seems that the authors have lost their critical stance towards idealism here -- cultural intermediaries in the abstract will probably look quite different in practice. How will they be able to avoid engaging in processes of distinction and differentiation themselves?].
Overall, the concept of social capital has helped Sport England rationalise its programmes. It does seem to allow for a combination of political positions. However, there is a dark side to communitarianism, as above. The government has been inconsistent in stressing the need to develop local trust while collecting centralised power [they seem obsessed with only talking to dubious 'representatives' of communities as well?]. Real improvements to the life of the marginalized are needed. We need a focus on actual rather than idealized groups, otherwise unpleasant consequences can arise -- welfare can become surveillance, and policies intended to help others can simply construct them as objects of evaluation. Reforming policies can help the wealthy disengage from social action rather than build bridges. Mutual respect is required of. Reformers cannot simply be parachuted into communities. They should recognise that the poor are mostly right to distrust the neighbours and pursue a tactical form of trust: leisure policy should be developed from their point-of-view.
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